JRPG Journey 2020: Super Paper Mario (December)
November’s games: Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2
Super Paper Mario is the third entry in the Paper Mario series, developed by Intelligent Systems and released for the Wii in 2007. Originally, I hadn’t planned to cover this game for this series. Dragon Quest III was on deck for December, but Final Fantasy X and X-2 took longer than I had hoped, and I had already started playing Super Paper Mario for fun on the side. To be honest, it barely qualifies as an RPG, but I believe it does indeed qualify, which I’ll expand on later, and I ended up having more to say about it than I’d expected, so it’s a solid choice to close out the year.
The first Paper Mario game was titled Mario Story in Japan, and the story-based roots of the series are on full display in Super Paper Mario (which I will hereforth refer to as “Super”). Like future games in the series (Sticker Star, Color Splash, and The Origami King), it dispenses with the classic turn-based, badge-heavy combat of the first two games, but unlike those titles (from what I’ve heard, anyway—I put my money where my mouth is and doubt I’ll ever play them), it features plenty of colorful, unique characters and a well-rounded, detailed story that kept me interested from start to finish.
As previously mentioned, Super could be considered by many to not even be an RPG, but I think it fits the criteria. While it lacks turn-based combat, instead opting for traditional platformer style action, there are multiple party characters, stats, and experience points resulting in level ups that give Mario and friends more HP or attack power. Granted, all of these mechanics feel nerfed compared to, say, The Thousand-Year Door (which I also reviewed earlier this year as part of my 2020 JRPG journey). You can only control one character at a time, stats are simplified from previous games, and it’s easy enough to forget about experience points entirely since all combat throughout the game is easy, including bosses. But the world itself, especially the hub, Flipside, is very JRPG in design—there are plenty of shops, sidequests, optional items, and exploration tied into all of this.
Let’s start, then, with the exploration. Unlike previous games, Super is divided into stages (four per chapter, with eight chapters total) that appear at first like traditional Mario platforming levels. The gimmick this time, though, is that Mario can flip his perspective into 3D and traverse the world that way. Sadly, only Mario has this ability, and the pace is dragged down whenever you need to flip perspectives while playing as one of the other party members. Small interruptions to the gameplay like this were annoying from the get-go, but I did get used to them after a while. At any rate, the flipping mechanic is the main appeal of the game for me. I loved seeing how the stages looked from this perspective and imagining how much fun the developers must have had designing them. While the graphics are very simple, they surely needed to be, considering every single room, hallway, and setpiece must be rendered and fit together in both two and three dimensions. If anything, my only complaint here is that the flipping gimmick wasn’t used quite often enough: plenty of puzzles make clever use of it, but around halfway through the game, these traversal puzzles fell off in quantity. However, I can understand why this is. There are a lot of creatures called Pixls who join your party and give Mario and team various abilities, such as being able to grab and throw objects, use a bomb, move quickly, do a ground pound, or even flip parts of the environment to reveal hidden paths or objects. Most of these are a little undercooked and underutilized, and the sheer amount of options the player has at any given time can be overwhelming. More than a few times, I resorted to a guide just to save myself time running around, trying to figure out which ability I needed to use. My play time of 17:20, about an hour under the average completion time according to HowLongToBeat, reflects this, but I have no regrets. I’m too old to waste time just trying to figure out how to progress in a game like this.
Level design is where Super Paper Mario truly stands out. Nearly every chapter puts a twist on tropes from different from past Mario games. Instead of a desert, you get a world resembling ancient history, with Cro-Magnon like characters and dinosaur like enemies. Instead of featuring creepy ghosts in the mysterious mansion stage, Mario must work off a large debt to escape (which, thankfully, can be cheesed easily if you look up some key information ahead of time, which I didn’t hesitate to do). Eventually, you reach totally unique locations (to the Mario series, anyway), such as an underworld like stage where you must cross the equivalent of the River Styx from Greek mythology, bargain to return to the land of the living, and eventually reach the Mario universe’s equivalent of heaven. An entire world even gets obliterated by the main antagonist while you’re in it, resulting in total chaos that I won’t spoil further. It’s these moments, coupled with the engaging story that kept me wanting to play more and more. Though I thought the story was great while playing, I don’t have much to say about it here. I urge you to play Super Paper Mario if you’re at all interested in the series, as it’s the best story in the series up to this point. Love, trust, tragedy, and friendship are all touched on, and the ending is flawless.
Comparing Super to previous Paper Mario games isn’t exactly fair. The Thousand-Year Door was a sprawling, epic JRPG that I actually found too sprawling, with backtracking making up the majority of the game. Super fixes that problem (there is very little backtracking), but the loss of badges and other RPG mechanics from previous games is missed. It’s good, then, that I love platformers, so the gameplay Super does hit home for me in its own way. This is not a game to be skipped if you enjoy the first two Paper Marios, and I’m glad I finally got to play it after it sat on my shelf for so long.
Well, that brings me to the end of my JRPG Journey for 2020. I had so much fun doing this that I’m going to continue the series next year, with a brand new set of 12 games for 2021. See you then!